Profile: Trivia Pursuit | Ben Schott
In the follow-up to his best-selling Schott's Miscellany, Ben Schott turns to food and drink esoterica, and details Attila the Hun's death by honey wine.
Ben Schott is in New York City noticing things. This is pretty much how he makes his livingnoticing thingsexcept that he mostly does it in London, where he lives, and where he created a little book, Schott's Miscellany, which became an international best seller in 2003 and spawned Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany, which was published in the United States last month. Each of the books is a collection of perfectly unnecessary butonce you begin to consume them, like bags of salted peanutsabsolutely crucial bits of information on obscure subjects. Schott spent countless hours compiling material from arcane reference works, then designed each book to his own quirky specifications.
Given the erudite nature of these books, you might expect Schott to be wearing a patched-sleeve sweaterto be a librarian, perhaps, with reading glasses dangling from his neck. When he walks through the lobby of his hotel in Manhattan's SoHo, however, Schott turns out to be a 30-year-old who is impeccably dressed in a blue-gray hand-tailored suit. "I've tried to preserve the ephemeral," Schott says of his two books. Literally, each of the books is a long list. The Food & Drink Miscellany, for instance, includes a diagram of the traditional Amish family seating plan; McDonald's outposts around the world and some of their regional specialties (the mutton Maharaja Mac in India); English slang terms for drunkenness (has a guest in the attic, sozzled, tangle-footed). Figuratively, each is a collection of seemingly nonessential information that shows that life's grand vista comes from an arrangement of its smallest details.
Schott's humor is dry, to say the least, but it is not so much ironic as charmed. In their sly and slightly retro manner, his books seem to conclude that the world, in all its miscellaneousness, is amazing. "The original book is being printed in Germany, and the translation of the title there is Schott's Sammelsurium, which I think translates to 'collection of good things,' and I quite like that," he says.
Schott's method is simple and completely unfascinating: He drops himself down into old books and manuscriptsmostly in either the British Library or the New York Public Libraryand follows the footnotes until they lead him to treasure, of his own intimate discerning. "It's just, I come across things and I read them," he says. "I'll tell you, it affirms faith in human nature. There is no subjectno subjecttoo obscure for someone to make it his life's work."
For a man obsessed with the obscure, Schott has very quickly found his way to fame. He was born in London, 10 minutes from his current home in Highgate, the son of a doctor and a nurse. His mother now writes medical textbooks, and his father, a neurologist, writes papers on what Schott (incredibly) describes as "obscure things." "Leonardo da Vinci's handwriting and footnotes in medical papers," Schott says. "This inquisitive gene has been passed down."
At Cambridge University, Schott was introduced to the world of fine food as a member of several "dining societies"a kind of English fraternity, though they meet only a few times a year and the beer is not served cold. One society in particular features nine-course meals. "Those were amazing meals," he recalls, "served in glorious 18th-century oak-paneled rooms, by candlelight, with staff. I mean, it was just jaw-dropping." As a member of Cambridge's centuries-old Shakespeare Society, Schott arranged a multicourse breakfast that finished off with a loving cup. According to the Food & Drink Miscellany, loving cups are "large ornamental drinking vessels with two or more handles." Drinking from them involves a ritualistic passing back and forth among a row of seated drinkers, the origins of which date back, as Schott can tell you, to King Edward the Martyr (reigned ca. 96378), who was stabbed while drinking a farewell toast. At Schott's breakfast, following the Society's tradition, the loving cup was filled with what's known as Black Velvet. "That's Guinness and Champagne," Schott explains.
After graduating Schott went into advertising briefly before becoming a photographer, shooting the likes of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the actor Hugh Grant. One year he started sending his clients illustrated holiday cards he'd made. Later he expanded them into a booklet with facts and figures that appealed to the graphic designer and what might be called the informationalist in him. "Wine bottle sizes, the words to national anthems," he recalls. "The things in the back of your mind that you always forget. I showed the booklet to some friends, and the reaction was astonishing. I thought, rather than send it out as a booklet, I'll carry on writing this stuffso I carried on writing, just to amuse myself, really. And I wrote 144 pages."
Then he had 50 copies printed up and, almost on a whim, sent a few to publishers, who called him immediately, enticed by the illustrations of cattle brands, the list of tongue twisters (I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch), the page-long collection of phobias (kakorrhiaphobia, fear of defeat; ranidaphobia, fear of frogs). After the Miscellany became a best seller, he was happy to continue. "I always knew it would be a series," Schott says. "I could go on forever."
It should be noted that to say Schott wrote the book is not exactly accurate, but to say he designed it is likewise limiting. Schott researched his material, wrote the items, designed the layout for each page and figured out how to match the facts to the design. He chose the font and type size, avoiding boldface and underlining ("You don't need them," he says), and spaced or indented every single wordall at home on his Macintosh, where he trained himself as a typographer. In the end, he simply sent a computer file to the printer. The size of the bookperfectly comfortable, come to think of it, when you feel it in your handsconforms to what is known as the Golden Ratio, a proportion between length and height that has been observed throughout the ages by architects and buildersand now Miscellany producers. "The Golden Ratio is a proportion of 1 to 1.618, which is a nonstandard size, which is a bit of a pain to print, but it's a naturally pleasing proportion that's found in a lot of nature," Schott says. "It's these really subtle things that no one cares about. They make such a difference."
We sit down for lunch at Gramercy Tavern, a restaurant Schott has always wanted to try. Menus, not surprisingly, figure prominently in the Food & Drink Miscellany. While doing some research at the New York Public Library, Schott came across a collection of menus, including one for President John F. Kennedy's birthday dinner at the Four Seasons in 1962, after which a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe famously sang "Happy Birthday." "No one keeps menus," Schott says, almost distraught, "and it's a sin! Tony Blair ate lunch with Bill Clinton at Le Pont de la Tour in 1997, and I managed to get the menu because the manager's wife, I think, kept it. But why isn't this a matter of record? Wouldn't it be fascinating to know what Nixon ate when he was in China? The wine at the Yalta conferenceI bet it was astonishing. Does anyone know what it was? I bet not."
Inspecting Gramercy Tavern's menu, he's not terribly displeasedthough he has yet to notice the food. The first thing Schott does is inspect the design. "This is not bad," he says, and that's high praise from him. "I don't think I've ever seen a well-typeset menu. Some are just appalling. At the Mirabellea very French restaurant in London, very glamorous, very fashionablethe menu's just weird, with almost no design consistency." Gramercy Tavern's menu passes. "I thought this was quite airy, actually. And I love that font on the window." He points to it. "I like 'Gramercy,'" he says.
Now that he's published the Food & Drink Miscellany, Schott fears that he will be misidentified as a culinary expert. "I'm not a food writer," he says emphatically. Why was food the subject of the second book in the series? Food is smack dab at the intersection of the exotic and the mundane, he says. And Schott does enjoy food. A cookbook aficionado, he found the recipe for Humble Pie, published in Food & Drink Miscellany, in an antiquarian book in his home. (Humble Pie, aside from being a method of demonstrating abasement, Schott naturally points out, was once a shepherd's pielike arrangement of deer entrails, or numbles, as described in Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook, first published in 1660.) In fact, Schott has produced a food book that is not so much about food as it is about the thing that, if you notice, makes food a meal: conversation. He says as much in the book's preface: "Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles (in both senses of the word). The book's purpose is to sweep up the crumbs strewn carelessly across the conversational tablecloth."
After lunch, after more delightfully inspired tangential conversation, after following themes like footnotes, we leave the restaurant and stroll down Park Avenue South to the Union Square Greenmarket. Schott notices honey for sale. "You start seeing the world through a miscellany vision," he says, noting that one origin of the word honeymoon is the Teutonic tradition of drinking honey wine after a wedding to increase fertility; as the Food & Drink Miscellany notes, Attila the Hun is said to have died from drinking too much honey wine after his wedding to Ildico.
Schott raises his gaze to the sky, marveling at the architectural detail on the 19th-century buildings around Union Square, and then proceeds to make a statement that seems ironic coming from a man who spends so much time with his head bent down into books. It's a statement that asks people to look at the arcane and realize its importance. It's a lament really, as Schott says it: "No one ever looks up."
Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor to Vogue and the author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.